Autism In The Classroom

How can I help my child improve handwriting?

By: Mary Ann Heinz, COTA/Ret

Sitting down to write is a fairly simple task.  Pick up a pencil or pen and write, right?  For the child with special needs writing may not be so simple.  Stop and think about the components of good writing skills.

  • Good sitting posture (upper body stability)
  • Shoulder stability (for control of the arm/hand)
  • Appropriate grasp pattern on the writing tool

Sounds easy, but when a child’s body  is not providing  good feedback about body position or movement this can be a daunting task.  Throw into the mix the need for:

  •  Good ocular motor control to visually track across the paper
  • Spatial relationships needed for line adherence, letter size and word spacing
  •  Good bilateral integration for development of lead assist hand patterns

….and the task becomes even more difficult, but not impossible.

 Here are a few tips that can make the writing experience a little friendlier:

  • Table and chair height should be appropriate for the child.  Feet should be stabilized on the floor and elbows resting comfortably on the table.
  • Paper should be slanted according to hand dominance.  For the right hand, slant to the right.  For the left hand, slant to the left.  This is important because it allows writing to flow smoothly across the paper and keeps the hand/wrist in the proper position for good distal control of the fingers and thumb.
  • The addition of a slant board can often be beneficial.  It places the paper in a better visual line for increased attention to task.
  • Use of a training tool for pencil grasp can also be helpful.  The HandiWriter is a soft cotton-band writing aid that facilitates the appropriate tripod grasp, while giving feedback for separation of the two sides of the hand.  This separation allows for greater distal control and comfort while writing.  A variety of pencil grippers are available that work well with the HandiWriter™.

Having worked in the special education department of a large school district for over 10 years I can attest to the effectiveness of these techniques.  I worked with a number of children with autism and found that, given the right tools and instruction, they were able to write with increased confidence and control.  I also found it important to work closely with the teacher for carryover in the classroom.

Each child is unique.  As parents, teachers and therapists, our goal is to provide opportunities that will help them realize their full potential.  If proper handwriting is the objective, then we have the techniques, training methods and tools to assist them in achieving their goal.

Mary Ann Heinz has worked as a COTA/L in pediatrics in both preschool and elementary school settings for twenty years. She developed the Handiwriter and co-founded  HandiThings, LLC.

Autism Classroom Setup Tips

Teaching autistic students can be challenging.  Students on the autism spectrum often have difficulty transitioning to new activities due to their lack of understanding and anxiety surrounding new situations.  They may also have attention and sensory needs that make it difficult for them to focus.  Setting up a classroom with visual cues and schedules can decrease anxiety, increase independence, smooth out transitions and minimize challenging behaviors.  Furthermore, paying attention to sensory needs and potential distractions will increase your effectiveness.

Successful Classrooms for Autistic Students:

Minimize Distractions
As you set up your classroom pay attention to where your autistic students will be seated.  Windows, the hallway or free time areas can cause lots of distractions.  Try to set your student in an area that gives them an unobstructed view of your teaching.  Look at your classroom walls.  If anything on your wall does not support your teaching take it down.  You don’t want your student focusing on a cute picture at the expense of valuable learning time!

Have a Calming Space
Stress, anxiety, and misunderstandings happen in the best classroom situations – so be prepared have a calming area for your autistic student.  This doesn’t have to be large, it can be as simple as a small corner behind a desk with a chair or beanbag, a weighted vest or lap pad, some noise cancelling headphones, and a few fidgets.  These items can be stored in a basket under or next to the chair.  Practice visiting the calm area before a meltdown happens, so when it hits your student knows where to go to refocus.

Use Visual Supports
Simple visual cues and using furniture as boundaries can lessen an autistic student’s anxiety and help them to focus.  Visual cues can include: a classroom schedule, visual timer, picture labels for classroom supplies, clear boundaries for different learning areas.

  • Use blue painters tape on the floors of your classroom to create line up areas, or boundaries between centers.
  • Use furniture as a boundary between your small group instruction area and and the art area.
  • As you think about where you will store materials, try to store them in the area they will be used in.  For example, keep the art supplies in the art section, pencils, rulers and graph paper in the math area.
  • Laminate the autistic student’s name and label to the different areas the student is expected to sit.
  • You can also laminate a large piece of construction paper to create a visual cue of the student’s work space.
  • Use visuals to mark areas that are off limits.  Simple stop signs can label cabinets and areas that are for teacher use only.

Accommodate Sensory Needs

Weighted Vest

Weighted Vest

Several studies have shown weighted vests help students focus and pay attention.  Weighted lap pads also work for students who have fidgety or restless legs.  Sitting discs or wedges also provide students with movement which can help them focus.

Pay attention to fluorescent lighting.  Some students are very sensitive to this form of unnatural lighting.  If this is the case try to sit your student near a window with lots of natural light or use classroom light filters.

Pay attention to noise.  If your student is sensitive to noise keep them away from noisy areas of the classroom like the doorway, pencil sharpener.  You may want to let them use noise reducing earphones for quiet study times or in anticipation of fire drills.

More Tips for your success:
Create a predictable schedule especially for the first five minutes of the day.  This will allow your autistic student to start the day successfully and ensure a smooth transition into learning.

Use it if it serves a purpose, if not get rid of it.  Set up your classroom area and furniture based on your students needs.  If you don’t need something let it go.  Clutter can be distracting.

For more tips to help you set up your classroom check out Setting Up Classroom Spaces That Support Students With Autism Spectrum Disorders.

For Tips & Behavior Strategies check out: A Treasure Chest of Behavioral Strategies.

Therapy Ball, Disc o Sit or Move n Sit – Which one should you use?

Burst Resistant Therapy Ball

There are now several studies that have shown students, including those with ADHD and other special needs, focus better in the classroom when they are allowed some movement.  One way kids can move while focusing is to sit on items like a therapy ball, Disc o Sit or Move N Sit wedge.  We are often asked by teachers and parents what is the difference and what would work best for our child.

All three of these types of items should help students to focus, because they operate in similar ways.  When a child sits on a therapy ball, wedge, or cushion they are sitting on a slightly unstable surface.  The slight instability of the surface causes the child to continuously make minor adjustments with their core muscles to stay balanced and seated on the object.  The core muscles of our bodies, the muscles that run up and down the front of our bodies and the mid and lower back help with stability and are rather large.  Thus the constant small movements of the core muscles allow the child to in a sense fidget without appearing to move.

Disc o Sit Jr.

Therapy Balls

Several studies have shown the effectiveness of therapy balls in increasing attention and focus with students.  You can read more about those studies here.  As we have talked to teachers here has been our feedback.  The positives first: a therapy ball provides more opportunities for movement with the leg muscles as well as the core muscles and has been helpful for very fidgety kids.  However, the downside is some kids have used the balls to gain attention by falling off the balls, rolling the balls and thus distracting the class.  If you do decide to use a therapy ball make sure it is an “anti-burst” ball as some cheaper therapy balls will in effect pop and almost immediately drop your student on the ground.  One can purchase ball chairs, but this is a more expensive option.

Disc O Sit

Sitting Discs

Both the Disc O Sit or Disc o Sit Jr.  have research behind them and have been used in classes to effectively help students focus.  These discs can be placed on a students chair so that they create the instability of a ball, but can’t roll away.  You will need to experiment with the amount of air you add to the cushion -  more air can create more instability, but the student may not like it.  These have a smooth side and a bumpy side with inch round knobs that provide slight sensory input.  Disc o Sits are highly sturdy and easy to inflate/deflate with a plug that you just pull out and blow into.  There are also lower cost versions of these.

Sitting Wedges

Move and Sit Jr

Move n Sit Wedge or Move n Sit Jr. also provide instability that causes the core muscles to move.  However, these items also have the added benefit of encouraging better posture.  For students with poor postural control, or those who tend to slouch this item will tilt their pelvis forward encouraging straighter spine alignment.  Like the Disc o Sit you can adjust the amount of air in the cushion by removing the plug and blowing into it.  This item also has a knobby side and a smooth side providing more or less sensory input.  There are also lower cost versions of sitting wedges as well.

It should also be noted that both the Move n Sit and Disc o Sit items are manufactured in Italy and do not contain any phthalates.

Join the New National Autism Resources Affiliate Program

National Autism Resources is proud to announce our autism affiliate marketing program. By referring your friends and family to shop at National Autism Resources, you can earn 8% of the total sale (minus tax and shipping) as our way of saying thank you. Also, if a person you refer makes any purchase within a 90 day period, you will get credit for all of those sales as well. Its never been easier to earn money while also helping people find great resources to support kids, teens and adults with autism.

This program is free to join. Once you meet the minimum requirements for being paid ($50), you will get a check in the mail from our trusted third party tracking system Share a Sale . This program is our way of saying thank you to all of our loyal customers and to help spread the word to those who need anything from teaching aids, to calming toys, or any of our proven autism products.

All you need to do to sign up is click here and begin filling out the information. Once you are approved into Share a Sale , just press the find merchants button, then type NationalAutismResources.com into the search box. Next, apply to our program and we’ll approve you ASAP.

If you have any questions, you can always contact our affiliate management company by skyping Adam at adam-riemer, emailing affiliates (at) nationalautismresources (dot) com or by leaving a comment on Adam’s blog. Adam is here to help with anything that you need as well as explain how to sign up and get started.

Our program will help you create links to any product on our site, provides a ton of great looking banners, links for emails to friends and family as well as videos about the products. If you think of something that we don’t currently have, please let us know and we will work on creating it for you.

Thank you again for being one of our loyal customers. We are looking forward to having you as a partner of National Autism Resources.

Games to Help Kids and Teens on the Autism Spectrum Work on Social Skills

Summertime is a great time to work on social skills with your kids and teens with autism or Asperger’s syndrome.  Several social skills games are fun to play and can encourage the development of vital social skills that can help kids and teens for the rest of their life.  Here are a few of our favorites:

 Blunders

Have fun learning about manners as players help the Blunders kids learn vital social skills so that they can get invited to the neighborhood party.  This is a fun game for kids both on and off the autism spectrum.

Life Stories

The Life Stories game is designed for people of all ages and is a wonderful way to support family conversations and get kids and teens on the autism spectrum talking.  Build empathy, conversation skills, listening skills and work on perspective taking as family members share their life stories.  This game is fun for kids and adults both on and off the autism spectrum.

Relationality

Relationship skills can be learned and current relationships can improve.  This evidence based game will teach teens and adults with Autism or Asperger’s Syndrome how to communicate to improve their relationships.  Players can play as a Bachelor, Bachelorette, Married Couple or as Living Together.

Consequences Game

Our actions have good or negative consequences that can affect our relationships. This very simple chutes and ladders type game is great for helping young children learn the importance of consequences.

Bullies, Victims and Bystanders

Kids with autism and Asperger’s unfortunately are often the target of bullying.  This important game will teach grade school age kids how to deal with bullies including several positive behavioral strategies to overcome bullying.

6 Social Skills Games

This set of six board games will teach elementary age kids with autism or Asperger’s seven important social skills.  The games cover the following social areas: manners, empathy, emotions, emotion management, choices and friendship skills.

 

How Parents & Therapists Can Use Cooperative Games to Build Essential Developmental Skills

By: Amy Smith, OTR/L

Cooperative Games- these are a few of my favorite things!  As an occupational therapist, I try to challenge the children I work with, supporting them along the way while working on their areas of need & sneaking in some fun!  Using cooperative games has brought with it smiles, full-on giggles and children that are working on oodles of skills!

fs2What Is A Cooperative Game?
It’s a game where everyone plays together, no one is left out, and everyone has fun! Unlike a traditional game where there is one winner and one (or many) losers, in a cooperative game the players work as a team against a common obstacle, not against each other.  This model emphasizes play, not competition. Kids experience shared decision-making, build self-esteem & confidence, learn to share and to work as a team.  Cooperative games also encourage inclusion, eliminate stress and teach kids that playing together can be fun!

Why Children Benefit:
They are perfect for children who need a boost in confidence because the pressure of winning is off.  Peaceable Kingdom has a variety of preschool skill builder games that target children age 3-6. These games have 3 levels of directions. As a therapist, we often grade a game and/or activity up or down to help meet the needs of each child-essentially making it easier or harder (this is already built into the game).  In a 1:1 therapy setting, a child can begin a game at the 3-4 year old level and as they gain understanding of the game and build skills they can progress to the age 4-5 and/or age 5-6 set of directions-they can grow with the game and the game can grow with them.   Adults playing can play at the most advanced level of directions and/or work at their child’s level.

In group settings these games can be used at the level of each child present without separating games for each individual. Children improve comradery as they together strategize and attempt to beat the game. Children’s faces light up when they know we are both on the SAME TEAM and WE are going to try and beat the game. It’s not about me giving them a challenging task and sitting back- it’s about joining them.

For families, many children are 1-3 years or so apart from their siblings. With 3 levels of directions designed into each game, one game can suit the needs and developmental skills for siblings that are even 3+ years apart-encouraging a family to sit down for a game that is both fun and therapeutic!  Games are designed to be played in 15 minutes- an appropriate duration for this age group.

Feed The Woozle: My Favorite!ftw

Children roll a dice to see how many snacks they get to select for the Woozle. Options include: chocolate-covered flies, hairy pickles & other silly/yucky snacks. You can set up the Woozle close by or place it in the next room (added challenge).  Children load the snacks on a spoon and then spin the spinner to determine what move they need to do while bringing the spoon of snacks to the Woozle’s mouth (march, go crazy, hula dance, spin, walk backwards). Get the snacks to the Woozle’s mouth without dropping them & you get a yummy card! Once the group has collected all 12 yummy cards, you win! The silly snacks cause some serious giggles & children love to see their therapist, teacher, parent, sibling and/or friend trying to hula dance or spin without dropping the snacks before the Woozle can gobble them up! This game is great for children who don’t like to sit still and like to be on the move! It has the silly factor, yet is challenging. I’ve seen that children are very attentive since they get to use their whole bodies (helps children obtain & maintain appropriate level of alertness/arousal needed for new learning).

Some skills addressed through use of these games:

  • Turn taking & social skills
  • Body awareness
  • Motor planning & coordination
  • Modulation of motor movement & impulse control
  • Sequencing of multiple step directions
  • Counting
  • Development of fine/visual motor skills & dexterity

Although the game designers did not develop these games for children with special needs, I’ve found them to be a new invaluable resource for therapists, families and teachers.

Amy Smith, OTR/L has over 12 years experience as a Pediatric Occupational Therapist.  She shares Kids Development Studio with Elaine Westlake, MA, PT in San Francisco, California.  Check out Amy’s Website for help Maximizing Your Child’s Potential!

What is Sensory Integration?

Starting Sensory Integration Therapy
Starting Sensory Integration Therapy

Sensory Integration is a theory originally developed by Dr. Jean Ayers an occupational therapist with training in neuroscience and educational psychology.  Dr. Ayers described sensory integration as a “neurological process that organizes sensations from one’s own body and from the environment thus making it possible to use the body effectively within the environment”.  This theory attempts to explain the relationship between sensory experiences and behavior.

Many children with autism have unusual responses to sensory stimulation that can cause them to react to their environment in unusual ways.  This can affect learning, self-help skills, social skills and more.  Some common signs of problems with sensory integration include:

  • Over reacting or under reacting to common sensory experiences.si
  • Fear of noises, frequently covering ears or an acute awareness of background noises.
  • The child may respond to normal touch sensations as if they were painful.
  • May crave or refuse to touch certain textures like paint, play dough or sand.
  • They seem to have little awareness of pain or temperature.
  • Unusual activity level, the child is either very hyperactive or under active.
  • A child may have an extreme dislike of certain grooming activities, such as washing their hair, brushing their teeth, washing their face or having their hair brushed.
  • A child may seek out or crave sensory sensations like touch, rocking or spinning movement, or have a fascination with lights, fans, water or spinning objects.
  • The child may avoid certain tastes/smells that are typically part of children’s diets or constantly seek to smell non-food objects.
  • Coordination problems: they may have trouble on play equipment, seems to tire easily, hesitate going up and down steps, frequently bump or crash into things.

If you suspect your child may have sensory integration problems make an appointment to have them evaluated by an Occupational Therapist trained in sensory integration.

How to Help a Classmate with Autism

HowToTalkToAnAutisticKid

By: Daniel Stefanski

If you have an autistic kid in your classroom, it would be nice if you invite them to play during recess. Playing with a classmate on the playground is something most kids take for granted but autistic kids often struggle with making friends due to communication issues and not understanding social cues. Your autistic classmate may prefer to play one-on-one or side-by-side like younger kids do so be patient and understanding. Group play may be overwhelming for your autistic classmate because of sensory issues. For example, loud sounds such as laughing and shouting may hurt his or her ears.

If you are a parent of a an autistic child and you aren’t sure if your child has friends, you might talk to your child’s teacher to see if he plays or talks with other kids at school. Ask if your child sits alone in the classroom, at lunch, recess, or school events. When I was in third grade, a neighbor told my mom that I usually sat alone in the lunchroom. My mom felt sad when she heard this but appreciated the information and then spoke with my teacher about having a “buddy” sit with me at the lunch table.

You might want to ask your child to if he has friends at school. If he doesn’t have friends, you can come up with ideas together about how to make friends during and after school. Kids with autism and other disabilities may have difficulty participating in sporting events, but there are other places where your child may make friends. Introducing your autistic child to other kids with similar interests can be a great way to find friends for your child. My local library has story time, a chess club and a Lego club. These activities are educational and fun. Plus, it’s quiet at the library and the other kids aren’t loud or rowdy. I like going to art class too and I’ve learned how to make ceramics, draw, and paint with other kids who enjoy the same.

If your autistic child continues to have trouble making friends, it might be a good idea to enroll him in a social skills group. I attended one and it helped a lot. The leaders were professional counselors and I learned how to behave in social settings. We practiced proper social behavior by “role playing.”

So classmates, parents, and students, continue to give kids with autism, opportunities to make and keep friends.

Daniel Stefanski is an autistic teen, for more advice check out his book, How to Talk to an Autistic Kid.

Behavior Solutions for Students Who Won’t Keep Seated

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By: Beth Aune, OTR/L, Beth Burt & Peter Gennaro

Today, more than ever, educators are faced with teaching core subjects for longer periods to prepare the class to master state standards.  This requires the students to sit at their desks for long periods, and they may lose focus.  Many students may have challenges with sustained sitting and have a sensory need for movement to help them maintain an alert state.  The student may leave his seat to pace, invent reasons to get up (sharpen pencils, get a drink of water, get some tissue), or stand up at his desk.

Here are a few behavior solutions:

  • Schedule movement breaks for the entire class inside the classroom, such as standing to “stretch and wiggle.”
  • Allow the student to help pass out papers, clean the board, or assist the teacher with technical media.
  • Let the student stand at the back or perimeter of the classroom or at his desk.
  • Allow a very motor-restless student to have a movement break outside the classroom.
  • Use oral strategies.  When the mouth is kept bus, often the body will feel calmer and the student can sit still.yhst-13171632195427_2197_2659997
  • Provide hand fidget tools, such as squeeze balls, tangles, rubber bands, and paper clips.

Was this behavior solution helpful for you?  If so check out Behavior Solutions in the Inclusive Classroom and the companion book More Behavior Solutions In and Beyond the Inclusive Classroom.

Excerpt from More Behavior Solutions In and Beyond the Inclusive Classroom, copyright 2011 Beth Aune, OTR/L, Beth Burt & Peter Gennaro. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

Is it a Reading Problem or a Sensory Vision Problem?

Sobroken-lower much of learning depends on a person’s vision.  As a matter of fact much of the brain’s activity centers around vision.  Many children on the autism spectrum and those with sensory processing issues have problems with their vision that is not picked up by a typical vision test.  This can affect reading and concentration.

If the child you are working is experiencing reading problems here are a few things to look for that may point to a sensory problem rather than a reading or learning problem:

  • The child complains that letters seem to wiggle, blur, move or disappear on the page.
  • Reading is difficult when reading with fluorescent lights or flickering lights.
  • When the child reads they squint, close one eye, or move their face abnormally close to the page.
  • When the child reads they frequently rub their eyes, blink their eyes or eyes become teary.
  • While reading the child begins to complain that their eyes are burning or itching.
  • The child frequently loses their place while reading or needs a guide such as a finger or ruler while reading.
  • The child complains of double vision.

If the child you are working with exhibits any of the behaviors above make an appointment to see a developmental optometrist.  A developmental optometrist is trained in vision therapy which may be able to help the child improve eye muscle control.  If lighting is a problem have the child wear a hat, sun glasses or sun visor while reading.

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